Ruth Duckworth; monumental sculptures & murals & dramatic poetry in ceramics
by Venetia Kapernekas
“I think of life as a unity. This unity includes mountains, mice, rocks, trees, and women and men. It is all one lump of clay. ” Ruth Duckworth (1919-2009)
….maybe the world’s foremost and influential ceramic sculptors? Yes, indeed..
One of the galleries that leads a journey discovering significant women in Art history is Salon 94 /New York and presently affirms some of Ruth Duckworth’s brilliant pieces.
Ruth Duckworth,’Untitled’, 2003, porcelain (5 3/4 x 5 1/2 x 3 1/2 in.-14.6 x 14 x 8.9 cm) Courtesy Thea Burger and Salon 94/New York
Ruth Duckworth (1919-2009) was born Ruth Windmüller in Hamburg, Germany. She began drawing at a young age and left Germany for England in the mid-1930s, fleeing the Nazi regime. She attended the Liverpool College of Art from 1936 to 1940, studying painting and drawing. She studied at the Liverpool School of Art, the Hammersmith School of Art and the prestigious Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, where she later taught.
Throughout the 1940s, she took various jobs as a puppeteer, tombstone carver, working in a munitions factory and spent some time working in Lucie Rie’s ceramic studio. At the time, ceramics in England were still quite traditional in style and functional in form, and her organic, hand-shaped, surrealist works were misunderstood by audiences at-large, but celebrated by fellow artists and ceramicists.
Ruth Duckworth ‘Untitled’, 2002 Bronze, 19 x 8 x 9 inches (48.3 x 20.3 x 22.9 cm) Courtesy Thea Burger and Salon 94/New York
Duckworth’s early sculptural work was representational but she turned to abstraction and organic forms that were influenced by both prehistoric and modern imagery, as well as nature and human relationships. Inspired by a museum exhibition she saw of Indian pottery, she continued her studies at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London from 1956 to 1958, turning more seriously to porcelain ceramics. …She started out by carving stone but moved quickly to clay.
She approached the medium as a sculptor rather than with the traditional methods of a potter and was influenced by such modernist sculptors as Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi, as well as primitive work and ancient carvings. (LA Times staff, sept 26, 2009)
Ruth Duckworth,’Untitled’,1989,Porcelain, 6 1/2 x 7 3/8 x 2 1/8 inches (16.5×18.7×5.4cm) Courtesy Thea Burger and Salon 94 New York
Ruth Duckworth characterized porcelain ceramic as ‘a very temperamental material’.
“ I’m constantly fighting it. It wants to lie down, you want it to stand up. I have to make it do what it doesn’t want to do. But there’s no other material that so effectively communicates both fragility and strength.” Ruth Duckworth
When the gallery sent me some visuals I could not stop thinking about some of the Cycladic Art and while deepening into my tiny research I am certain now that Ruth had deeply studied both the Grotta-Pelos (Early Cycladic I) culture (c. 3200?-2700 BC) and the Keros-Syros (Early Cycladic II) culture (c. 2700-2400/2300 BC)
(images:source, The MET/Dept of Roman and Greek Art)
marble head from the figure of a woman, Early Cycladic II, 2700-2500 B.C. H.915/15 in (25.3 cm), Gift of Christos G. Bastis, 1964, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ruth Duckworth, (source of images: Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, Sedalia, MO, exhibition photo, “Modernist Sculptor” (July 30-October 23, 2005)
Ruth Duckworth, ‘Untitled’, 1986 (image source; auction house)
Ruth Duckworth, ‘Untitled, 1990, porcelain,Courtesy Thea Burger and Salon 94/New York
Duckworth’s work helped shape a new way of thinking about ceramics in the second half of the 20th century and created a place for clay as a sculptural medium at a time when it was not widely accepted.
In one body of work she sets smooth and open shapes against sharp taut lines, deriving a dramatic poetry from a confrontation of flux and substance. In another, she creates massive undulating vessels with rough textures and earthy tones whose delicate sensuality belies their size and strength. (exhibition writer )
“Her stoneware murals, notably “Earth, Water and Sky” (1967-68) and “Clouds Over Lake Michigan” (1976), incorporated topographical swirls and abstractly rendered cloud patterns. Her small works, by contrast, were often delicate and abstract, with surrealist overtones. The influences were varied. The stylized modernism of Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi and Isamu Noguchi competed for attention with Egyptian, Mexican and Cycladic art.”(William Grimes, NY Times, Oct 24th, 2009, ‘Ruth Duckworth, Sculptor & Muralist, dies at 90 )
During her twenty-three-year tenure teaching at University of Chicago), she joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1964),Duckworth brought some excellent public art to the university and the city, most celebrated, the mural ‘Earth, Water and Sky’. In the 1970s, she received a commission for “Clouds Over Lake Michigan,” a mural that was displayed first in a bank and later in the lobby of the Chicago Board of Trade building. It is a sweeping piece of relief that incorporates meteorological and geological themes.
Ruth Duckworth, Earth, Water, Sky, Geophysical Sciences Building at the University of Chicago, 1967–68…a ceramic mural featuring abstracted weather patterns, rock formations, and topographical views, lines the entryway to the Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences.
For Earth, Water, and Sky, completed in 1968, Duckworth abstractly depicted aspects of the earth’s natural topography and environment, using clay glazed in earth tones, modeling “fins,” and carving concentric circles to represent the elevation rings of Mt. Fujiyama. (source:The Minneapolis Institute of Arts)
Alice Westphal, Duckworth’s dealer at the time, describes the mural as an “archaeological fantasy of Chicago as a site of an ancient civilization” centering around the dualities of life: “order and chaos, similarity and difference, the organic and the fabricated…creation and regeneration.”
“That was really a breakthrough piece for her. She really found her voice and form in that piece,” said Michael Dunbar, her friend and a sculptor who is an art in architecture coordinator for the state of Illinois. (LA Times, October 26, 2009)
Upon retiring from the university in 1977, moved her studio space to a former pickle plant in Lakeview, Chicago. She lived on the second floor of the space which she renovated in the early 1980s. A large opening in the floor allowed her to look down from her home to see her murals in progress and envision how they would look on a wall.
‘Clouds Over Lake Michigan‘ ‘(1976) at the Chicago Board Options Exchange Building, and large bronze works at various college campuses. Duckworth here has invented a territory where rhythmic, unfurling nature collides with human history. The mural embodies the dualities in life: order and chaos, similarity and difference, the organic and the fabricated – the oppositional elements necessary to uphold balance and sustain harmony.
Ruth Duckworth in her studio, Chicago (image source:American Craft Council )
Her work is featured at such institutions as the Art Institute of Chicago; Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Windsor Castle, England; Stuttgart Museum, Germany; National Museum of Modern Art, Japan; Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen, The Netherlands, Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; National Museum of Scotland; Kestner Museum, Germany; Schleswig Holsteinisches Landesmuseum, Germany; Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe, Germany; City Museum, Bassano Del Grappo, Italy; Buckingham County Museum, England; Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Utah; American Craft Museum , New York; Los Angeles County Art Museum, California; Evanston Public Library, Illinois; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (source:The Venica Project)
Ruth Duckworth, Untitled (Archival Inventory), 2002, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Renwick Alliance in honor of Kenneth R. Trapp, gift of an anonymous donor
“She was a great original, pioneering her own path within ceramics, brilliantly exploring the idea of the figure, the vessel and the more abstract form,” said Emmanuel Cooper, a British ceramist and an editor of Ceramic Review. (NY Times, Oct 24th, 2009)
Ruth Duckworth house in Chicago, ( a former pickle factory at earlier times a dowdy part of Lake View (along the Metra tracks on Ravenswood Avenue)
Nature remained her inspiration, and many of her ideas took root in a courtyard garden. Duckworth passed away in 2009 in her adopted home of Chicago.`